BANGOR, Maine — Military leaders gathered at Bangor’s Fourteenth Street School on Wednesday to highlight the importance of early childhood education.
Pre-kindergarten programs such as the one at Fourteenth Street are critical to maintaining the nation’s security, they said, as well as ensuring that more American youngsters develop the skills and abilities they need to follow their chosen career paths.
The top brass were responding to a recent national report showing that 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unfit for military service or other careers from having failed to graduate from high school, having engaged in criminal activity or being in poor physical condition. They called on local and state officials and congressional leaders to adopt early education as a priority and to fund program expansions and quality improvements.
“This report has given me tremendous cause for concern and should be a wake-up call in Maine and nationally,” said Maj. Gen. John “Bill” Libby, Maine Adjutant General and commissioner of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, speaking to reporters in the school library.
Libby, retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Nelson Durgin and retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Robert Carmichael Jr., called for enhanced preschool programming in Maine to counteract the trend cited in the report, titled “Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve.”
Published by the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness, the report finds that 30 percent of young Americans lack a high school diploma, 10 percent are ineligible for military service because of a criminal record, and 27 percent do not meet military fitness guidelines.
In Maine, 24 percent of ninth-graders will either not graduate with their classes or else drop out of school altogether, said Libby. Dropout rates are lower among students who are enrolled in pre-kindergarten and other programs, he said.
“The key is supporting early childhood education programs,” Libby said.
Libby, who holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Maine, said children “are who they will become by the time they are 5.”
Pre-K programs not only promote early reading and math skills, but they also cultivate curiosity, character and social skills, said Durgin, whose grandson attended the pre-K program at Fourteenth Street last year.
Military culture demands self-discipline, the ability to work with others and an attitude of acceptance toward those who are different, Durgin said. Youngsters without the benefit of an early introduction to social and academic expectations are less likely to be able to participate in the armed forces or other life endeavors, he said.
Durgin also delivered remarks for retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Gene Richardson, who was unable to attend Wednesday’s event. Richardson’s statement called attention to the “serious criminal problem” among Maine youth, with more than 7,000 juvenile offenders in the corrections system in 2008.
“When young people are turning to illegal behaviors, it hurts the community and the economy and detracts from the strength of the military,” Richardson said. “Service branches need young people who are able to do the job, to develop right moral attitudes and stay on the right side of the law.”
Carmichael called on political leaders and policymakers to support funding for public pre-K programs, Head Start and other early education programs.
All three leaders said preschool programming should help children develop good nutrition and physical activity habits to combat obesity. It is ironic, Carmichael observed, that budget cuts and other trends are pushing many schools to eliminate physical education classes, recess and other opportunities for kids to enjoy physical activity at a time when fitness levels in youngsters of all ages are measurably compromised.
“Our kids today have very sedentary lifestyles,” Libby said.
While it is tempting for members of the older generation to feel nostalgic about their childhoods spent outdoors, unstructured and far from television and computer screens, he said, those days are past.
Schools and preschool programs must incorporate formal physical training and activities into their curriculums, Libby said.
According to Bangor School Superintendent Betsy Webb, there are 180 pre-K slots in Bangor’s five neighborhood elementary schools. Should demand outstrip that capacity, she said, another 20 slots could be added in an afternoon program at Fourteenth Street.
Bangor pre-K classrooms introduce the same curriculum used in kindergarten, she said, so children become familiar with materials and concepts. Pre-K in Bangor schools is free for families who live within the city limits.
Of about 14,230 4-year-olds in Maine this year, about 3,500 are enrolled in 165 public pre-K programs throughout the state. An unknown number of others are enrolled in private preschools. Education department spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the state has been pushing hard to expand pre-K capacity, using federal stimulus funding.
“We certainly see the value of these programs,” he said Wednesday. “Investing upfront saves money down the road.”
After the press conference, the military leaders enjoyed reading picture books to a group of pre-K students in the school’s library.